The sun is getting ready to peek above the horizon. The world is still, gently stirring to life. My family sleeps next to me; one, two, three.
And there I am.
And trying to convince myself that I am not dying.
I have had mental health issues since long before my time as a mother, and I have had them a long time since. I dare say i’ll have them for quite some time to come, too. They have been such a constant in my life for so long now that I genuinely can’t imagine what it might be like to live without them; I can’t imagine what I might be like without them.
It’s hard to summarise over a decade of mental health issues, to say nothing of the raw and complex nature of such a thing. Where do I even start? How could I possibly convey what it feels like to debate with your own mind, to doubt your every move, to be afraid every day? How can I explain what it’s like trying to tell what feelings are normal, and which are exaggerated? How can I do this in a concise, articulate way that other people can relate to? I mean, i’ve been trying to describe it and talk about it for over 15 years; how on earth could I do it now, and in a blog post no less!
The older I get, the more physical the symptoms become. More often than not, I feel foggy-headed and tired. My stomach churns and aches, and is riddled with cramps. My chest pains, tightens, beats too hard and too fast. My head spins, lightheaded, sweats. My body shakes, bouncing between hot and cool flushes. I can’t sleep, can’t rest, yet I’m so tired I can barely move either. Any one of these symptoms can arise at any time, and on the worst nights, all at once. I’m plagued by bouts of insomnia. Not the ‘I was up til 2am last night’ insomnia; the ‘it’s 9am and I haven’t slept at all yet’ for days at a time insomnia. It comes in waves, an ebb and flow, like most of my mental health battles do. A wave may last a week, or two, or more. Night after night, awake with the moon, alone in the quiet blanket of darkness, waiting for the safety of daylight before my body, and my mind, can finally, finally rest.
And it’s in these waves, late at night, that the darkness doesn’t only surround me, it consumes me.
Insomnia leaves me exhausted, and being exhausted makes it harder to maintain control of my mental health. Which is why, for night after night, in the late night hours, you could find me in bed, curled in to a ball. Stomach churning, chest pains, hot flushes, cold flushes, sweating. Head pounding, dizzy, faint; here, but not really. A panic attack.
When these first began, I had no idea what they were, and I was terrified. During these attacks, it’s not just the physical symptoms that are an issue – oftentimes, it’s your head that you really need to worry about. You see, it whispers. It convinces you of things that aren’t real, and in my case, it would convince me I was dying. Legitimately, actually, dying.
Which. Is. Terrifying.
The stress from this made my physical symptoms more intense, which in turn made my head more convinced of the worst. It’s a vicious cycle, ruthless and relentless. It doesn’t care if, logically, you know better; there’s no logic when you’re in the midst of an attack. It’s pure survival, all I could do was ride it out and hope for the best; and the best case scenario when you think you’re dying? It’s that you don’t.
For months, many of my nights went like this, until I realised what it actually was, which meant then that I could better prepare for an event. Now, when it comes on, I still need to ride it out, and there’s still a part of my brain convinced that I’m dying. But now, now the other voice is getting louder, the voice that says, ‘No, Not Today.’ The voice, my lifeline, all that I have in the battle of brain vs illness.
The late hours of the night are not my only worry; anxiety and depression don’t care what time it is, or what day it is, or that you know better. Anxiety gives me panic attacks, it keeps me home and makes it hard to navigate the world the same way a healthy person might. It overthinks everything, it worries if this is the day I will die, it worries what will happen to my kids if i do. It sees me writing notes in my phone with directions like ‘if I die, please tell the kids…’. It sees me stress over every single twinge and ailment my body develops, forever fearful of the worst. It keeps me from straying to far from home, from making major life decisions, from the things I love to do. It keeps me small, and it keeps me afraid.
It’s an endless battle, silent, and all my own.
Depression, though? It’s more subtle, more insidious.
It’s days with no energy, no motivation. It’s days of ‘what does it matter anyway?’, of carelessness and loss of feeling. It’s dishes piling up, feeding the kids but forgetting yourself, wearing the same clothes for four days straight. It’s struggling with basic self care – how many days has it been since you’ve showered? Have you eaten today? When did you last leave the house? It’s social withdrawal; ignoring messages and phone calls and visitors. It makes any one of these tasks seem unsurmountable, if you care enough about them at all. It’s a numbness to life, like being stuck at the bottom of a hole, with no willpower left to try to climb, so you sit and you wait and you wonder how you got down there anyway.
This year has been a rough mental health year. It has been exhausting, and frustrating, and scary. I have never been so tired, so mentally exhausted from the constant battle.
Yet, I have hope.
I know my demons. They’re worse in the winter, and in the quiet hours of the night. And while they may have had a bigger presence than usual this year, I also know that there are days, even weeks sometimes, where I regain control, and I can almost imagine what a normal life might be like. I know they morph, changing over time; they may look like this now, but they’ll change, and when they do I’ll be ready.
I know that for every single day that I feel at the mercy of my mind, there are good days too; glorious days, magical days, full of joy with my family.
I know that, over all, it’s not so bad. It is all in my head, after all.
And hey, I’ve made it this long.
I’ll make it a decade more, if I have to.
It’s been a few months since my last big panic attack. There are still far too many nights where I’m still awake as the sun rises, and far too many days where I can’t find the motivation to get out of bed or to leave the house.
But, thanks to my family, even on the hard days, even when my brain doesn’t care at all for itself, it cares for them. And, despite how it may sound, it’s not all misery and hopelessness; while every day may have it’s challenges, I am lucky in that for the most part, I can manage it, and there are no major issues. I’m tired, but i’m making progress.
I read recently that self care is like a garden, not a race. If you view your mental health journey as a race, with a finish line, you will forever be chasing that golden moment where the struggle ends and you move on to an ‘easy’ life, a normal life. I know I’m guilty of wishing for the finish line, wondering when it will end, or even if. Maybe this is just who I’m set to be for my time on earth. And then, I read about the garden. And my entire perspective changed, and instead of feeling guilty that I was no where near this supposed finish line, I felt empowered in my own mental health journey, for the first time in years.
Don’t see it as a race.
Instead, see it as a garden.
A garden requires ongoing maintenance; you can’t just plant the flowers and hope it turns in to an outdoor oasis. They require care, the right fertiliser and soil. They require sun, and water, and trimming and weeding. It’s an ongoing process, much like self care. Flowers, they aren’t at 100% all year round, either. In winter, they wilt, reserving their energy for the spring time, where they burst back to life, with an abundance of colour and vigour. Allow yourself to grow, to ebb and flow. Care for your mind as you would a garden; patiently, lovingly. Pluck the weeds, give extra water in times of drought, warmth in the bitter winters. Don’t worry if you sometimes fall behind and neglect your garden; new seeds can always be planted, new life can always spring forth.
See it as a garden.
I am lucky in that I know there are options out there. I am aware of my illnesses, and my doctors are too. I have undertaken therapy in the past, and in fact am planning on utilising it again in the near future. Know that there are options for you too, and it doesn’t have to be medication, if that’s what holds you back. The Australian government offers 10 bulk billed therapy sessions per year if you have a mental health plan through your GP. Talk to them to see if you are eligible. Speak up, seek help. It could change your life.